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—Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1855
"I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me."
—VS Naipaul, 2011
There’s a post that’s been stuck in my craw for some time now—ever since the VIDA count came out last year, the statistics that proved an alarming disparity when it comes to which gender gets published in the major journals. I felt that griping about the status of women writers was off-topic for this blog, which I had started exclusively as a venue for discussing ideas pertinent to beginning writers. I went so far as to ask Lesley Wheeler about it, but I passed on the topic more than once since then.
I was wrong. It’s a very pertinent topic, especially if you’re a beginning writer who happens to be a woman. Here’s the thing: whether you want it to or not, the issue is going to affect you. You can no more not write as a woman than you can not write as a Latina or a black or an Asian, but that’s another post.
What finally threw me over the edge was Anis Shivani’s post about Philip Levine being chosen as the next poet laureate. To be incensed by Shivani is to be duped—he sets out to shock you, and so of course was bound to poop on Levine’s parade. I’d no more be upset by that than by Madonna (I show my age—Lady Gaga?). It’s the way he went about it that really upset me. Shivani has taken Levine’s appointment as an opportunity to blame all that is supposedly wrong with modern American poetry on women.
To be fair, Shivani’s rant is not original—people have been condemning modern American poetry for its depoliticized self-absorption for a while now. Billy Collins, he whose great poetic oeuvre is the ode to osso bucco, has made a career out of not being self-aggrandizing (it’s no surprise that Shivani mentions him in his rant). It’s also nothing new to blame the contemporary confessional poets for this so-called bankruptcy. After all, you can only be depressed for so long before people start telling you to shut up and get over yourself, and after the initial voyeuristic thrill of the first confessional poets, those who came after were bound to bear this criticism. It’s also not Shivani’s fault that most of the major second-generation confessional poets happen to be women: Sharon Olds, Jorie Graham, Louise Glück. All this being said, however, Shivani’s rant shows too much glee. What a wonderful opportunity, via the thinly disguised excuse of Levine’s appointment, to totally diss the top women writers of our day. Everything that’s wrong with contemporary American poetry is directly attributable to women’s obsession with the personal and domestic. They are outside of history, their dramas of no interest to the world: “Whereas Robert Lowell had a secure sense of himself as a conductor in the vast orchestral schema called History, for Olds and the post-feminist writers of our era womanhood as it exists is an unfathomable conspiracy, a calumny against some ideal nature that must nevertheless be embraced.”
Yikes. Olds writes in “flat language, unimpressive diction, predictable rhythms, and barely passable metaphors, lumped together in herky-jerky fashion across intentionally unclean line breaks.” Graham is “unreadable.” For Glück, “from 1968 until now nothing in the real world seems to have impinged on Glück's domestic melodrama.” He must complain about Levine, or the ruse collapses, yet of him Shivani says, “unlike Olds, Graham, and Glück, Levine does possess some measure of genuine skill.”
WTF? Glück, in particular, gets a lot of hate. Not many people liked her last book, A Village Life. Admittedly, it’s not her best (although it doesn’t suck, either). But read William Logan’s New York Times review and you’ll get a whiff of that same old stench. Glück’s “pinch-mouthed poems have long represented the logical outcome of a certain strain of confessional verse — starved of adjectives, thinned to a nervous set of verbs, intense almost past bearing.” She is unable to strike out successfully in a new direction, unlike “Eliot, Lowell and Geoffrey Hill, who have convincingly changed their styles midcareer.” All the groundbreakers—except for Plath—are men, and women who follow them, like Glück, cheap imitations. Apart from Eliot, Lowell, and Hill, Logan compares Glück’s work to the bible, Edgar Lee Masters, even M. Night Shyamalan. Nowhere and no one is too bizarre an original from which Glück copies. Even Plath doesn’t get credit: “Glück learned much from Plath about how to make a case of nerves central to poetry,” Logan says, but “both poets owe a shadowy debt to Eliot”!
A new semester is beginning. I have to be careful, because on Rate My Professor someone has warned my new students that “SHE iS SUCH A fEMiNiST! EXtREMELY RUdE iF Y0U d0Nt AGREE WiTH HER ViEWs! i LEARNEd AL0t Ab0Ut W0MENs RiGHTs! bUt ALL t0GEtHER SHEs N0t tHE BESt PR0f!!”
So be it.
One of the greatest tragedies I have witnessed—yes, I mean it: one of the greatest—in the last two tragedy-filled decades is the demise of feminist discourse. Somewhere between Buffy and Bella, “feminist” became an archaic term, something like “abacus.” To be a feminist not only marked you as some old warrior fighting a remote battle belonging to some long-forgotten war, but as a man-hater, baby-hater, fat-ugly-hairy nuisance.
WTF? I’m not going to claim some sort of media conspiracy is to blame for the death of feminism—I don’t believe the world is that organized. True, the word became too rigid at some point, and it became difficult to be a feminist while at the same time being heterosexual or Catholic or—worst of all—pretty. But these multiple identities were present in feminist thought since its inception. What really happened, I think, is that we just gave up. Exhausted by the effort, by the glacial pace of it all, it was much easier to say yippee, we won, than to continue fighting.
Perhaps what makes me “rude” is my refusal to play along. Look at Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, the freshmen will say (remember when we made the effort to refer to them as “first-year” students?). Go ahead, look at them. Clinton had to pretend not to be fazed by people telling her to “stop running for President and make me a sandwich.” Palin had to stand being referred to as “Caribou Barbie.”
Two of the most critically acclaimed American films of the last two decades are American Beauty and Revolutionary Road. Both were directed by Sam Mendes. Both screenplays were written by men, and the novel on which Revolutionary Road is based was also written by a man. How are these not domestic dramas? No; they are biting social commentary, meditations on the collapse of the American Dream. They would only be petty, self-absorbed domestic melodramas if they were written by women.
I am a feminist poet. I have to be. If you are not only a beginning writer, but a woman, I suggest you figure out how you feel about this issue, before someone else figures it out for you. Define your feminism or lack thereof any way you want to, but define it. Because you will never be a writer—you will always be a woman writer.